The last time I dove into the Japanese criminal underworld with undeniable bad-ass Kazuma Kiryu was early 2011. That's nearly five years ago. Now, the sequel has – at long last – launched in North America and despite the obvious drawback of playing on an old platform, it delivers for the die-hard fans. When compared to its predecessors, Yakuza 5 has far more features, a much bigger environment, and a more involving cast of characters. In short, it feels like a properly advanced new installment even if it isn't "new" in the strictest sense of the term (it released back in 2012 in Japan). The only other problem is that because of the long wait, fans may have forgotten much of the story.
But I'll get to that in a minute. Graphically speaking, as you might expect, the game won't impress those who have been immersed in the new console generation for over two years. Yeah, this is a PS3 game. But you know, even with the lower-quality textures and general lack of clarity and sharpness, one still revels in this rich, finely appointed atmosphere. Immersive backdrops do require at least some semblance of visual achievement in order to be effective, but let's not forget that style and design are also critical. Such traits are not necessarily contingent on technical superiority; rather, they are mostly subjective and therefore, those who love the singular style of a sprawling, lively Japanese metropolis won't be disappointed.
Same goes for the audio. Again, if you're a fan of Japanese voice performances – which do indeed tend to differ in certain ways – and you like the soundtrack, you're going to be happy. The effects are especially attractive simply due to the hard-hitting nature of the gameplay: Every gut-wrenching, bone-crushing impact comes through beautifully and draws you further into the action. Kazuma and others hit so hard that you'll sometimes wince…but then you'll grin. In so many ways, Yakzua 's combat has always felt like a next-level yet logical progression of Double Dragon , and it works exceedingly well in the audio department. The rest hinges almost entirely on one's like – or dislike – of Japanese culture, as you probably already know.
If you haven't played a Yakuza game in a while, you might be surprised at the greatly increased diversity and variety inherent in this new production. Early on in this franchise, the city you explored couldn't really be described as "open," as you couldn't enter most buildings and the urban area itself wasn't very large at all. That has changed, though, because Yakuza 5 definitely feels like a fully featured open-world action/adventure, complete with a main storyline accompanied by smaller branching narratives, and a great assortment of mini-games and other activities. Toss in the familiar combat that never gets tiresome and you've got a winner. Hope you like lots of melodrama, too, because there's oodles of it here.
You begin this new quest disguised as a taxi driver in the city of Fukuoka. There are highway racing challenges and driving missions throughout the game, even though the crux of the gameplay is on the streets, with flying fists and feet. The driving isn't bad though sometimes the control doesn't feel as precise and responsive as it should, and I'm not sure if the strict traffic laws are a good addition. Realistic, sure, but it sort of inhibits the fun, and it can be annoying when you're simply trying to get from Point A to Point B. However, this is only the tip of the iceberg; if you think the game consists of simply zipping around in a cab and beating on people, it's time for some illumination. Remember the great variety on display in GTAV? It's not that dissimilar, believe it or not.
There are over 20 mini-games to attempt during your exploration of this surprisingly large game, and that includes hunting, dating, batting cages, casino games, etc. You can even play some classic fighting titles in the arcades; there's Virtua Fighter 2 , for instance, which certainly brings back memories. The bottom line is that there are plenty of quality distractions out there, which only add to the enjoyment and longevity of the experience. Of course, even if you get hooked on the oddly addictive UFO Catcher, you'll eventually return to the fray, where Kiryu and friends are embroiled in a plot that stretches back to the original. Remember the little girl Haruka Sawamura? Well, she's 16 years old now and she fully intends to be a pop singer. Yeah, kinda corny but admittedly, very Japanese.
And this leads to yet another tangent, which involves rhythm-based gameplay reminiscent of old-school music games. But not only do you have to master the timely button presses during a performance, you also have to play the "teen idol" role with general aplomb; this means TV appearances, meeting the fans, etc. It's clear the developers put a ton of effort into Haruka's part in the story, which is great because people like me – who loathe J-Pop – will need something to distract them from the god-awful music. The cool part is the fully fleshed-out career element here, which is worth applauding. On the downside, I think we spend too much time with this stuff; the heart and soul of Yakuza is most definitely not on the stage. C'mon, it's out there on the mean streets!
And speaking of combat, I have to say it's pretty much the same as I remember. This will be a downside for some; a plus for others. I like the familiarity and accessibility of it but in some instances, it does feel a tad dated. Perhaps the biggest issue is a lack of any sort of counter system; it's a glaring omission in this day and age and with an imperfect camera, it can be a problem. On the flip side, a lot of those awesome crushing animations have returned, and you always strive to use the environment to your advantage. Doing so gives you the edge and also lights up the screen, because what Kazuma does with certain objects is just…wow. But I honestly think the mechanic would seem a little old even back in 2012, because we do feel very limited – and as a result, very vulnerable – when defending.
Still, I don't want to make it sound as if there's no depth. Dodging is essential and you can still execute a variety of throws. You can still mash away on buttons during most encounters with street thugs but there are times when you'll have to concentrate. Some bosses require different approaches, for instance, and you can't just come straight ahead all the time. You'll also learn that the more you use your environment, the more you can play the intimidation card, which has an immediate impact. One of the reasons I always loved the fighting in these games is because the main character is just so ruthless. And it's nice to see one's foes reacting to such mercilessness, which was missing in earlier entries. All that being said, I do believe it's long past time for a gameplay upgrade, both in terms of physics and intricacy.
To be fair, the world you explore isn't the most authentic representation of a Japanese city. It's entirely fictional, of course, and there's always an aura of fantasy that follows each and every character and situation. In other words, Sega was never trying to produce a perfectly simulated metropolis. However, there is refinement and meticulous design in certain places (if you know where to look), and exploration is rewarded. It's not so much about feeling lost within a gigantic, realistic metropolis; it's less about virtual reality and more about a fictional and often over-the-top presentation of a typical Japanese area. It's not quite a caricature and it's not quite a simulation. Provided you understand the developer's goal in this respect, you'll better appreciate this intriguing setting.
Yakuza 5 is what you want from a quality sequel: There are a myriad of interesting storylines that feature solid characters, the environment you explore is bursting with vivacity and energy, and the fighting is as satisfying as ever. There are plenty of worthwhile distractions to find and then, at the core, is the same great brawler we've enjoyed for years. Still, I think that pop idol segment dragged on too long, the camera isn't perfect, and the combat is starting to show its age. I'm hoping that Sega's first order of business in Yakuza 6 is to upgrade the core mechanic, while taking the next step in open-world design. And of course, it'll be the first time we've seen Kazuma and Co. with upgraded modern-day graphics. Won't that be nice?
The Good: Engrossing, lively environment. Numerous intriguing storylines and good characters. Satisfying, accessible combat. Plenty of gameplay variety with mini-games, distinct chapters, etc. Your curiosity is generally rewarded. Kazuma remains a gigantic bad-ass.
The Bad: Yeah, graphics are obviously dated. Pop idol part is a little too intrusive. Imperfect camera and physics. Combat starting to show its age.
The Ugly: "I will never understand the fascination with teen idols in any culture."